Congratulations to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka on winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine! They received the award today for their “discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.” In other words, these scientists figured out how to turn a normal adult cell, such as a skin cell, into a stem cell that has the potential to become any other type of cell in the body. Read below to learn more about stem cells and how they are revolutionizing medical research.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are special because each is like a blank slate. Once it’s given the proper instruction, a stem cell can specialize and become any type of cell in the body—brain, heart, muscle, and more. Stem cells also have the ability to reproduce themselves indefinitely, renewing the supply.
Are there different types of stem cells?
Embryonic stem cells only exist during an organism’s development, when it is an embryo. These cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the capacity to become any cell type in the body.
Adult stem cells exist in fully developed organisms. They are more limited than embryonic stem cells—they are multipotent rather than pluripotent. These stem cells usually can only become a few types of specialized cells, based on the tissue from which they originate.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are pluripotent, much like embryonic stem cells. iPSCs are produced in the laboratory by genetically reprogramming any adult cell, such as a skin cell.
Why are stem cells medically important?
Stem cells may be the key to a new generation of treatments for many diseases. They could be used to create new tissue or organs for patients awaiting transplants. They also hold potential for repairing or replacing malfunctioning cells in the body. iPSCs are increasingly being used to develop personalized treatments and test for side effects before the drugs are prescribed to patients. (See also: What is “Disease in a Dish?”)
What diseases are being targeted by Sanford-Burnham’s stem cell researchers?
Here are a few examples:
Spinal cord injury. Dr. Evan Snyder is developing treatments for spinal cord injury, stroke, and childhood and neuropsychiatric diseases using neural stem cells that home in on damaged tissues.
Alzheimer’s disease. Using stem cell technologies, Dr. Stuart Lipton is reprogramming an individual’s own skin cells into brain cells that can be used to study the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and to look for personalized treatments.
Brain tumors. Dr. Robert Wechsler-Reya is trying to better understand how stem cells can give rise to brain tumors and is creating stem cell-based models that can be used to test new drugs that target the disease.
Heart failure. Dr. Mark Mercola is generating heart cells from embryonic stem cells in the hopes of using them to treat heart attacks and heart failure. Dr. Vincent Chen is deriving iPSCs from patients with inherited heart conditions and using them to develop new therapies.
Diabetes. Dr. Pamela Itkin-Ansari is working to restore insulin production in patients with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes by transplanting new insulin-producing pancreatic cells produced from stem cells.
How are Sanford-Burnham researchers advancing stem cell technologies?
Providing community resources. Stem cell resources, support, and training are available to the entire scientific community from our Stem Cell Research Center. Staff scientists can derive and characterize iPSCs, generate differentiated cells, and more. This Center provides these resources to academic and pharmaceutical scientists whose disease-focused work could benefit from the technology, but who lack experience working with stem cells.
Making it easier to make stem cells. The process researchers use to generate iPSCs is time consuming and inefficient. To speed things up, Dr. Tariq Rana and his team are using microRNAs and kinase inhibitors. Kinase inhibitors block the activity of enzymes responsible for many aspects of cellular growth and survival. MicroRNAs are small pieces of genetic material that help determine which genes are turned on or off in a cell. With these advanced methods, scientists are now able to generate many more iPSCs than the standard technique.
Developing new medicines. Sanford-Burnham Stem Cell Research Center scientists are using iPSCs derived from individual patients to recreate each person’s unique disease in a laboratory dish. Researchers in the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics, Sanford-Burnham’s high-throughput drug screening facility, are using these disease-in-a-dish models to search for chemicals that reduce cellular signs of disease. They’re developing the most effective chemicals into new therapeutic drugs.
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